“How to Make Money Selling Drugs” seems destined, even designed, to incite controversy. It’s TV-MA rating does not begin to describe its inappropriateness for child audiences; the film exposes viewers to images of shocking violence, hateful racism and the indignities of the booze-filled club scene. But most incendiary of all is its apt title – structured as a “how-to” for the down-and-out entrepreneur, this feature-length documentary actually does teach its viewers how to make money selling drugs.
The film takes the job seriously, as if it were a corporate training video (cheesy effects included). Taking the viewer through seven hierarchical stages of the international drug trade, Matthew Cooke’s audacious documentary refuses to skimp by with trite tips or satirical one-offs; this film breaks down “the game” by seeking out its best players. The result is a lineup of drug trade all-stars, divulging their best secrets, drawing audiences higher and higher up the lucrative chain of the trafficking industry.
Some of the best advice comes from a nameless low-level crack dealer in Detroit, who speaks through heavy voice distortion and never shows his face. Keep the home and office separate, always. Never put money where others can control it. But the pragmatism is in no way reserved for the street corner hustler – even students aspiring to kingpin status can learn some very practical lessons on how to succeed, from the mouths of dealers who made it big.
The impressive roster of interviewees includes “Freeway” Ricky Ross, the former LA crack dealer who made millions the old-fashioned way, by recognizing a market need and stepping in to provide it; Bobby Carlton, who once made $50,000 a day smuggling powder cocaine into Florida; and Brian O’Dea, who made a $200 million profit on a single international marijuana deal. These dealers and more share their hardlearned lessons with remarkable candor – and at first the film seems determined to play it straight all the way to the end.
But once Cooke’s instructional video winds its way to Mike Walzman, its satirical roots begin to show. Walzman represents everything the great white majority of America most fears about drug dealers; he made a brief but explosively lucrative career out of supplying addictive drugs to wealthy teenagers in Beverly Hills and hosted wild parties encouraging a wide range of risky behaviors. Yet when he was caught, the consequences for this scurrilous profiteer of the children of America were surprisingly mild, and the episode allows the filmmakers to convey their most salient, if least pragmatic, suggestion: anyone who wishes to minimize their risk in the illegal drug trade should first make sure they’re white.
If Cooke and company had stuck with this winning formula straight to the end, they would have made a terrific film. Sadly, the documentary’s final third descends into a ham-handed didacticism which considerably blunts the glimpses of greatness occasionally peeking through the first hour. Its attempts to couch the illegal drug trade in the broader context of failed U.S. policy tromp through well-trodden polemics with all the nuance of a drunken rugby team – a consequence, no doubt, of the short time allotted to a complex subject matter.
Ultimately, the film has sufficient virtues to see audiences through such shortcomings. The shocking frankness exposing the ease of subverting drug laws is shown with equally harsh brilliance on the risks of the trade, of which the cops are the least dangerous: rival dealers who may hold no compunctions against committing heinous acts of violence, or even ambitious workers within the dealer’s own organization. But, most harrowing of all is the risk of becoming addicted to one’s own wares, as nearly every dealer interviewed for the film seems to have done at some point. Perhaps that is why nearly every dealer in the film also speaks of their stint in “the game” with nostalgia-tinged regret.
First appeared in Issue 8 of Cannabis Now Magazine.
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